Sunday, 9 September 2007

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

The reality doesn’t match the picture. The truth often falls short of the imagination. How often has it been that we saw a brochure or an advertisement of what we intended to buy, order or where we intended stay and when we have bought the item, ordered the food, or arrived at a hotel, we were disappointed? Nothing is like the disappointment of being short-changed.

Today, Jesus lays before us the reality of discipleship and not the imagined picture of it. Luke tells us that “great crowds accompanied Jesus and he turned and spoke to them: Anyone who does not carry his cross and come after me cannot be my disciple”. The cost of discipleship is measured in such practical terms as “unless a grain of wheat falls onto the ground and dies, it remains but a single grain”. In short, discipleship is sacrifice.

Take up your cross and follow Christ. But, the truth is that many of us are followers of Jesus from a distance. Why? The definition of discipleship is made more difficult by a certain caricature of it. In the 70s and 80s, it was customary to paint Jesus as a political revolutionary and therefore the idea of discipleship was perhaps more a reflexion of Che Guevara, the ideal political revolutionary than the historical Jesus ever had been. If discipleship were about political agitation, it marginalises a lot of people—who will fall within the category of the “politically useless”. From a psychological point of view, it doesn’t take a lot to move from feeling useless to being useless. Useless people give up hope in themselves.

The truth is that there is a cost to discipleship which we ought to reckon with. St Maximillian Kolbe, the Conventual Franciscan, who died in a WWII concentration camp was granted a vision of Our Lady and in that vision she offered him a choice between “White” or “Red” Martyrdom. He chose both. What is relevant to us is that the distinction between Red and White is a distinction between the forms, modes or types of martyrdom but not a distinction or a measure between good or better. The cost of discipleship is to be equally paid for by those who receive the Crown of Red Martyrdom or the Crown of White Martyrdom. If Che Guevara or any revolutionary form or political manner of discipleship which involves the shedding of blood or Red Martyrdom were promoted as the ideal mode of martyrdom, then, those who receive the crown of White Martyrdom might just feel less worthy before Christ. And, I suspect that accounts for a reason why the Church is marked by the lukewarm phenomenon of discipleship from a distance. When you don’t feel that your sacrifice is worthy of Christ, you tend to follow Him with a half-hearted resolve. Just like a wife/mother cooking for her husband/family. If no one appreciates her cooking, very quickly the cooking falls into a formulaic predictable pattern. You know what to expect for Tuesday dinners. Likewise, if you feel Christ doesn’t really appreciate what you can offer, you are less likely to give/offer Him your best. It’s human.

Discipleship is sacrifice, whether paid for by blood or otherwise. The reality is often we pay less with blood than with a life of constancy, consistency and commitment. In fact, faithfulness demands so much more than blood. It is easy to die in an instance—in a hail of bullets but much more difficult to die over a lifetime of faithfulness. [It’s easier to call out Viva Christo Rey than to undergo years of faithful labour]. Thus, Christian discipleship is not lived in the abstract and to think solely in terms of red martyrdom is to live somewhat in a vacuum. It also turns discipleship into something unattainable and thus keeps us at an uninvolved distance. But, discipleship is nearer than we think. All we need to do is to focus on where we are and we will find the answer to how best we can exercise our Christian discipleship.

For example: marriage. It is one of the best forms of discipleship today. Christ loves us so much that he gave his life for us. A man and woman bound by the bonds of marriage is the best reflexion of the union between Christ and the Church. We live in an era which tries to promote intimacy without complications. The reality is that there are no perfect couples just like there are no perfect disciples. There are a lot of struggling couples. It is in the struggles that discipleship is lived out and perfected. In fact, the prayer of blessing over couples celebrating their marriage anniversary acknowledges that “amid the joys and struggles of their life, God has preserved the union between them”. The trials or tribulations we face are rich grounds upon which the seeds of discipleship can take root.

In an earlier part of Luke’s Gospel Jesus said: “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross every day and follow me”. Thus, discipleship does not take us out of the ordinary. Instead, discipleship is exercised in the mundane everyday existence that we lead. A teacher is called to discipleship through faithful teaching. A harassed mother tending to her brood is answering to discipleship. An aged father or mother you are landed with is discipleship. When there is disability in the family, often when the parents are gone, you shall have to bear the burden of caring for an adult but disabled sibling; that is discipleship. In fact, nothing in the ordinary is outside the boundary of discipleship. Our Maximillian Kolbe was an ordinary priest who served ordinarily before he died extraordinarily.

Today, in a world which exalts the exciting, the glamorous and the sensational, there is a grave need to reclaim discipleship from the amazing, extraordinary and the unusual. Discipleship is not the preserve of a few but the arena for the many. We don’t need to hate our family because ordinary life provides enough opportunities for abnegation, renunciation and sacrifice in the exercise of discipleship. Hating mother or father is not the measure of discipleship because Jesus is not concerned by the size of our sacrifice. Instead, the depth of discipleship is measured by the size of the heart that makes the offering. Let us ask Christ in the Eucharist to give us hearts big enough so that we may dare embrace his discipleship with heroic courage and quiet fortitude.